HOBBS – The alarm rings at 3 a.m., and Ronell Mangilit is the first one up in a house he shares with four fellow teachers.
He prepares breakfast and writes up the day’s math lesson. Then it’s off to teach sixth-grade math to children of New Mexico oil rig workers. It’s a job no American wanted, but one the 30-year-old Filipino was willing to pay thousands of dollars to get.
Armed with a doctorate in math education and a promise to a deceased brother, Mangilit borrowed the equivalent of a year’s salary in the Philippines – roughly $9,000. He used the money to pay multiple recruiting agencies, one of which helped him find the job at Heizer Middle School in Hobbs, where a statewide teacher shortage is made worse by the population growth that comes with a boom in the region’s oil fields.
Mangilit now owes that agency another $3,000 a year for three years. To make ends meet, he and his housemates converted the living room into a bedroom.
“I would like to finance the college education of my niece,” he says, explaining that he hopes to pay his debts and start saving. “I am taking that as a responsibility, a fulfillment of the promise I made to my brother before he died. A little dramatic, but that’s it.”
More than 200 foreign teachers have taken similar steps to work in New Mexico public schools, where the statewide teacher shortage has given rise to a desperate demand for math, science, special education and bilingual instructors.
Lured by recruiters who charge a premium, foreign teachers each shell out between $5,000 and $15,000 in fees, plus thousands of dollars in additional costs, to work in one of more than a dozen New Mexico school districts. The districts are large and small, from Albuquerque, with its 91,000 students, to Questa, with its 378.
“From what I have heard, some firms do right by the teachers, and some firms are totally exploiting these people,” says Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation. “I am worried about their living conditions and working conditions. Whether they have resources, transportation, mentorship, how much they are paying out of their paycheck.”
In dozens of interviews with recruiters, foreign teachers, school administrators, union leaders and others, Searchlight New Mexico found a system that lacks transparency and risks trapping teachers from developing nations for the life of their three-year visas. Many teachers are so deeply indebted to recruiting agencies at home and in New Mexico that they have little choice but to stay put and pay what they owe.
“Let’s call it by its old name: indentured servitude,” says Ewa Krakowska, a union organizer for the National Educators Association in New Mexico. “It forces unrestricted compliance on the part of employees, because they want to stay here.”
Some job recruiters demand their fees in monthly installments, while others ask for thousands of dollars at the outset. Either way, the teachers typically borrow hefty sums at high interest rates in their home countries to pay upfront costs. In New Mexico, they often don’t know their salary level until they get here.
Mangilit says he is one of the lucky ones; his credentials and experience earned him a top spot on the state’s salary schedule. Many of his lower-paid colleagues are struggling.
But most feel that it is worth their while: New Mexico teacher salaries – which start at $36,180 – appear astronomical to Filipino teachers accustomed to earning $400 to $800 a month at home.
“The United States is the crown jewel for teachers coming [here],” says Colin Taylor, the former superintendent of San Jon Municipal Schools in eastern New Mexico who founded Presidio Teach, a recruitment agency that has placed dozens of teachers in New Mexico.
Several teachers who spoke with Searchlight – on condition of anonymity out of concern for their jobs – say they felt misled by recruiters and didn’t understand the extent of the debt they were getting themselves into until they were here a year or more.
Among the cases Searchlight documented:
• A science teacher in Hobbs signed over 25 percent of his first-year $44,000 salary to Texas-based recruiter Gina Chiang of International Expert Resources (IER). He lives in a house with three other Filipino teachers, including one who brought his wife and two kids.
“We are emotionally drained,” he says. “We are financially drained. Two years, and I still don’t have anything in my pockets.”
⋄ A special ed math teacher in Clovis arrived from India at the start of the 2017 school year.
“The one thing I am missing is transportation,” he says.
A medical issue over the summer set him back and he can’t afford a car. He agreed to pay 15 percent of his roughly $55,000 salary – about $8,250 – to Presidio Teach each year for three years.
⋄ A Hobbs math teacher paid $3,000 in fees to a placement agency in the Philippines and Chiang of IER. She also agreed to pay Chiang $9,000 in “program costs” upon her arrival in New Mexico in 2017.
“When you get here, you realize something is wrong,” she says.
She had assumed her fees would cover the basics: airport pickup, temporary accommodations and help finding permanent housing. They didn’t.
⋄ A Roswell math teacher owes $15,000 – due in monthly installments – to her recruiter, Janice Bickert of Total Teaching Solutions International, based in Ruidoso. The teacher says she handled most of the logistics on her own. TTSI helped secure the J-1 visa sponsor.
Recruiters say they are paid to handle a complicated international exchange program.
“I am a Cadillac service,” says Bickert, who adds that her contracts end should the teacher choose to return home. “I am not a one-year-and-done company.”
Chiang said: “We do a lot. Initially, we have to recruit the teacher into the program. Get their credential, their interview. Then the flight arrangement and housing, and we have to work with the school. We have to help with official documentations. Pretty much the whole time they are in the J-1 program we have to guide them.”
Taylor declined to comment on arrangements his company has with teachers.
“There is nothing in the federal regulations to stop recruiters from charging fees,” says Dan Ewert of Cultural Vistas, a New York-based nonprofit that is an official U.S. Department of State sponsor of J-1 “cultural exchange” visas.
“But we make sure to interview all the candidates,” he says, “and we have found there has been a lack of clarity on whether the teachers knew what they were getting into.”
Across the U.S., 2,876 J-1 visas were issued to teachers in 2017, up 140 percent from nearly 1,200 in 2010. In New Mexico, the State Department issued 166 J-1 visas to teachers between 2015 and 2017, compared with 70 in the prior three years.
J-1 visas last three years and may be extended an additional two years. Unlike the H-1B guest worker program – coveted by foreign workers because it lasts six years, must be paid by the employer and is regarded as a stepping stone to U.S. residency – the J-1 is temporary, paid by the teacher and cannot be easily parlayed into permanent residency.
“Schools tell us that these teachers fill a critical need in areas where there is most often a shortage of U.S. teachers qualified to do the position,” says Nathan Arnold, a State Department spokesman.
Mandy Carpenter stares down the teacher shortage every day as director of human resources in the Clovis Municipal School District. This year, she hired 11 teachers from the Philippines and India on J-1 “cultural exchange” visas.
“It really is the only way at this point,” she says. “We still have 15 openings and zero applicants. It’s not like there is a pool of candidates; there isn’t even a puddle of candidates. We have substitutes and retired teachers helping us out.”
Experts chalk up the shortage to a variety of factors, including low pay, mandated smaller class sizes and high attrition brought on by stressful teaching conditions.
“I do think (the shortage) points to problems and challenges with our teacher pay and the way teachers are treated,” says Paul Gessing, executive director of the fiscally conservative Rio Grande Foundation in Albuquerque. “Districts are going overseas because Americans won’t do the job.”
Of 16 districts with J-1 teachers, only one said it worried about recruiter practices and tried to bypass them: Central Consolidated School District on the Navajo Nation.
That district relies on a network of Filipino teachers hired years ago on H-1B visas. They spread the word back home that the district was hiring, and it has worked: Central Consolidated welcomed 19 Filipino teachers with J-1s this fall, using two visa sponsorship companies that charge about $1,500 per teacher and skipping the recruiting firms altogether.
“If there are ways – just like we’re doing – not to charge them that (recruiting fee), I think that is a really good help, not just for the teachers but for their families back home,” says Leandro Venturin, a data coordinator and architect of CCSD’s policy.
And at Heizer Middle, just two months into the school year, Mangilit is convinced he is doing an important job.
He is attuned to the poverty of Hobbs’ south side. It’s an area ranked by the New Mexico Department of Health as the No. 2 spot in the state for concentrated risks to child well-being.
“I was a hardworking teacher in the Philippines, modesty aside,” he says. “But now I am more hardworking here because I see the need.”
Searchlight New Mexico is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to investigative journalism. For a more complete story and photos, go to www.searchlightnm.com.